With the turn of the New Year, two women have achieved new roles of substantial power in the motorsports industry. Both will impact the discussion of women in racing as we know it.
The first big announcement was by the FIA. Also known as the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, they are the governing body that oversees the racing aspect of Formula 1 and sub divisions among many channels of international motorsports. In December, they appointed a Spaniard by the name of Carmen Jorda to the FIA Women’s Commission.
A ‘test driver’ for the Lotus Formula 1 team, Jorda’s racing resume is not the most impressive. More of a spokesperson, shots of Jorda posing in a driving suit or standing in front of an car holding her helmet are plentiful, but actual driving stats are scarce. In her frustration with the challenges she has faced being a woman in racing, Jorda has decided that the industry is rigged. Her opinion is that her gender will never have a decent opportunity in professional racing and therefore a separate, women’s only series should be created. In an interview with the sanctioning body back in 2015, she stated: “Nowadays you see women competing in their own championships: football, tennis, skiing – you name it – and in none of these championships are men and women competing against each other. So the question is: why not have a F1 world championship for women?”
Former CEO of Formula 1, Bernie Ecclestone not only agreed with this thought, but openly contested the role of women in motorsports in general. He has even gone as far as to say that women “should not be taken seriously” in F1 and that “they physically cannot drive a car as fast.” Though in 2000 Eccelstone went as far to share his vision with Autosport racing magazine, saying that if a woman did make it in Formula 1, “What I would really like to see happen is to find the right girl, perhaps a black girl with super looks, preferably Jewish or Muslim, who speaks Spanish.” Clearly as Ecclestone saw it, women in this industry are merely present for visual appeal and to be used as a marketing tool.
This segregation that Jorda speaks of only further feeds the divide. Not only would pulling in sponsors be an issue for a separate female series, but it eliminates one of the biggest appeals of motor racing- equality. When competing for the Champion of the World, all drivers should have the chance to Just be drivers. A women’s only series limits the winner to be the champion only amongst women. This takes a step backwards from the groundwork that predecessors have fought every inch for.
Possibly, unbeknownst to Jorda, she is the Achilles heel to her own cause. By posing for photo shoots she has turned herself into a marketing ploy. Yes, it has gained her access to one of the biggest boy’s clubs in the sporting world, but at the cost of being taken seriously as a competitor. In her new role on the Women’s Commission, it is her responsibility to now uphold the reputation of her gender in the most historically scrutinized form of racing. Here lies the concern.
Jorda’s appointment sparked outrage across social media platforms, particularly from women in the industry. One of the hardest-hitting tweet responses was from an engineer by the name of Leena Gade:
“I chose to compete in a man’s world, like so many other women in countless motorsport roles. WE want to be the best against males & females. Can’t do that? Play another game.”
In early January, Schmidt Peterson racing announced Gade as the first female head engineer in Indy Car series history. This appointment goes in the opposite direction from Jorda’s.
Leena Grade’s race engineering resume is a perfect example that women can share the podium with men. Biggest accomplishments to date include her three 24- hour Le Mans wins, one of which she was subsequently awarded the FIA World Endurance Championship ‘Man of the Year’ award. Gade is quick to say that she is also on the FIA Women’s Commission and hopes to negate the thought of a separate women’s division in racing.
The tides are changing in the motorsports world. This is a topic that is very personal to me as a young woman stepping into this industry. The days of these sexist ideals are on the way out. Liberty Media announced in early February that Grid Girls in Formula 1 are going the way of the dodo as well. This removal, I believe, is a positive one. I agree with Carmen Jorda that women have not have not had a fair shake in racing. I also believe, however, that this fight is also an uphill battle to reprogram societal norms. It is not easy – but retreating to a separate series takes away just how big of an accomplishment an appointment like Leena Gade’s is.
Drivers like Janet Guthrie, Lyn St. James, Lella Lombardi, Maria Teresa de Filippis, the Force sisters, Simona de Silvestro, Danica Patrick, Sarah Fisher, Katherine Legge, Pippa Mann and dozens of others serve as reference material, a testament that women have and will have a place in the top tier of motorsports. As Ecclestone once stated: “women should be dressed in white like all the other domestic appliances.” If you truly believe that Mr. Ecclestone, then it is high-time for us clean house.